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When a police shooting victim is a white woman

The sympathetic reaction to Justine Damond’s death shows the relentless power of race in America.

A photo of Justine Damond, whom a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed. Facebook

The reaction to a police shooting sure looks different when the victim is a white woman.

There’s a typical story that plays out in the aftermath of police shootings. One side, critical of police, comes out pointing to the excesses of police brutality, particularly in cases in which officers killed black men and boys. The other side, supportive of police, comes out pointing to the nuances of the cases and perhaps the ways that the victims are to blame for their deaths — he had a criminal record, he didn’t listen to the police, and so on.

This didn’t really happen after Justine Damond, a white woman, was shot and killed by a black police officer, Mohamed Noor. While many people — including some Black Lives Matter activists — criticized the shooting, very few defended Noor in the same way they have stood up for police officers in previous incidents. Not many articles focused on nitpicking the lack of information we have to try to weaken the case against the police. There’s been little to no victim blaming.

Consider the ultra-conservative news outlet Breitbart. The outlet has been unusually muted about this particular police shooting, running few original articles on Damond. One of the articles it has run, however, paint her as a victim who was just trying to get help: “Woman Calls 911, Shot Dead by Minneapolis Officer.”

In contrast, Breitbart ran many original stories about the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in which it painted Brown, his family, and even his supporters as criminals. After reports said prosecutors would drop charges against the officers allegedly involved in Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in Baltimore, Breitbart ran the headline, “Report: Prosecutors Drop All Charges in Heroin Trafficker Freddie Gray Case” — again, describing the victim as a criminal. After Cleveland officers shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Breitbart ran headlines suggesting that Rice was large and dangerous: “The Latest: 12-year-old Tamir Rice was 5’7″, weighed 175 lbs” and “Cleveland Officers Claim Tamir Rice Lifted Shirt, Reached into Waistband.”

The difference in reaction is alarming. But it’s not unexpected. The research suggests much of America really does react differently to tragedies involving white victims than black ones. We are seeing that play out in real time in the response to Damond’s death.

The reaction to Justine Damond’s death was different

In general, the coverage of and public reaction to Damond’s death — going back to her homeland, Australia — has been more sympathetic and empathetic to her death, and it’s created a greater sense of urgency than is typically seen in the aftermath of police shootings (even those of unarmed white men, suggesting gender plays a role too).

It’s not just Breitbart. Conservative media, based on some sleuthing on Google, has been generally quiet about Damond’s death — which is notable on its own, given that these outlets often counter what they see as liberal news narratives with their own narratives, particularly when it comes to police shootings. As one example, a Google search turns up four stories on the Blaze, the network founded by conservative pundit Glenn Beck, about Damond, but there are pages and pages of results from the Blaze for each of the killings of black men like Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Philando Castile.

When conservative outlets have written about Damond’s death, they by and large have framed her as a victim. Here is, for example, Fox News: “Australian woman shot dead by Minneapolis police after calling to report possible crime.” And here is the Blaze: “Questions swirl after Australian woman is fatally shot by Minneapolis police; bodycams were off.”

Damond’s lawyer played into this as well, calling Damond “the most innocent victim” of a police shooting that he has ever seen. He quickly added, “I’m not saying Philando wasn’t innocent, too, or that Frank Baker wasn’t innocent. But here is someone who called the police and was trying to stop someone from being hurt … and ends up being shot in her pajamas.”

Ranking victims of police shootings is odd enough, but there are plenty of totally innocent victims of police killings besides Damond. Consider that, in Detroit, police in 2010 killed a sleeping 7-year-old when they stormed her home while looking for her uncle — though this girl, unlike Damond, was poor and black.

The headlines by some conservative outlets and pundits have also emphasized the officer’s race, ethnicity, and religion. Here is one Fox News headline, which focused on Noor’s national origin: “Somali immigrant cop Mohamed Noor, who shot Justine Damond, was 'highly celebrated' by Minneapolis mayor in 2015.” And here are some from far-right activist Pamela Geller, which emphasized Noor’s national origin and religion: “First Somali-Muslim police officer in Minnesota KILLS blonde yoga instructor in cold blood” and “Muslim killer-cop’s story falls apart: Justine Damond’s neighbors heard no loud noises — multiple people interviewed.”

This is something I saw in my social media feed as well: the repeated insinuation that Noor was inherently violent and dangerous because he was black, an immigrant, and Muslim.

Here, for example, is the most upvoted comment on one of Breitbart’s stories about Damond: “Anyone named Muhammad should not be on any police force in America. I hope this liberal mayor of Minneapolis is forced out of office. I usually agree with the police on shootings, but this, based on the information released, should be murder.”

There is, of course, zero basis for the bigotry behind this claim. But it’s widespread enough — and, sadly, predictable enough — that after Noor’s identity came out, the Somali community in Minneapolis prepared for the backlash.

The Washington Post reported:

The report stoked fear among Somalis in the Twin Cities, who have worked for decades to become part of the city’s fabric. There are now Somalis on the police force, the city council and in the Minnesota House of Representatives. But the largely Muslim population of Somali Americans in the region still face Islamophobia and innuendo about terrorism.

Then there’s the Minneapolis police department’s reaction. Less than a week after Damond died, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau resigned. This led to a viral tweet arguing that the reaction to the police shooting of Damond proves what racial justice activists have long said:

The tweet isn’t fully right. One of the problems in the Damond case is that it took several days for officials to confirm Noor’s identity to the public. And in other cases involving black victims, police leaders were also pushed out: Baltimore’s police commissioner was fired after Freddie Gray’s death, and Ferguson’s police chief resigned after Brown’s death and after a Department of Justice report exposed the systemically racist nature of the Ferguson Police Department — although, crucially, both happened months after the high-profile deaths of the black men in question, not mere days like in Damond’s case.

In general, it’s going to be difficult to draw perfect comparisons from police killing to police killing. Police departments are different. Victims will have different backgrounds. The circumstances will vary — sometimes enormously so — from case to case.

And it’s probably the case that police departments are simply more likely to react swiftly to high-profile police killings now that they’ve faced years of criticism over similar incidents.

But much of the reaction we are seeing now feels predictable — in a bad way. As Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King noted in his New York Daily News column:

Simply put, [“mirror neurons” is] the concept of how when you see something happening to someone who looks like you, or reminds you of yourself, you have neurons in your brain that fire off almost like you yourself are experiencing the thing you are watching. For the past three years, African Americans across the country have been watching the horrors of police brutality and internalizing so much of the pain as those mirror neurons fire off. The pain and the plight are personal.

Maybe, just maybe, with the shooting death of Justine Damond, millions of white people, for the very first time, will now see a victim of police brutality, and see themselves.

There are plenty of questions about the science of mirror neurons — since they have mostly been studied in monkeys — and how they would apply to a situation like this. In general, though, the empirical research backs up King’s point about who the public tends to show sympathy and empathy to.

People are more likely to empathize with victims of the same race

One telling study came in the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans. In a 2007 study, researchers found that people tended to believe that victims in racial outgroups suffered fewer “uniquely human” emotions like anguish, mourning, and remorse than victims in racial ingroups. And, in the aftermath of a natural disaster, that perception of fewer “uniquely human” emotions led participants to be less willing to help victims in racial outgroups.

In short, people showed more empathy to victims of the same race than they did to victims of a different race — in a way that affected people’s willingness to help after Katrina.

The Katrina research is just one example. A 2009 study found that, when looking at images of others in pain, the parts of people’s brains that respond to pain tended to show more activity if the person in the image was of the same race as the participant. Those researchers concluded that their findings “support the view that shared common membership enhances a perceiver’s empathic concerns for others.” Other studies reached similar conclusions.

In the case of Damond’s death, then, many white people are simply much more likely to see her as a victim — someone who needs their help. That’s what much of the media reaction, even among conservative defenders of police, has reflected.

Meanwhile, other research suggests that people generally hold more hostile views toward black Americans — ones that characterize even black children as dangerous.

One 2014 study, for example, found that people view black boys as older and less innocent starting at the age of 10. “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” Phillip Goff, an author of the 2014 study, said in a statement. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”

One series of studies, released earlier this year, used various visual tests to see how people perceive the bodies of white and black men. The findings were consistent: When participants believed the man in the images was black, they generally saw the man as larger, more threatening, and potentially more harmful in an altercation than a white person. And they were more likely to say use of force was justified against the black men than the white men.

Another study found that people tend to associate what the authors call “black-sounding names,” like DeShawn and Jamal, with larger, more violent people than they do “white-sounding names,” like Connor and Garrett.

“I’ve never been so disgusted by my own data,” Colin Holbrook, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name.”

Again, we saw this in reaction to police shootings. People were a lot more likely to question the circumstances around even 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s death — and the conservative media was quick to characterize black victims as criminals.

These kinds of biases help explain why black people are much more likely to be shot and killed by police than their white counterparts. In 2016, for example, the Guardian found that police killed black Americans at a rate of 6.66 per 1 million people, versus 2.9 per 1 million for white Americans.

And the systemic biases also help explain why, even though white Americans are much less likely to be the victims of police, they may occasionally get much more sympathy from large segments of the public than black victims.